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Monday, March 21, 2016

Concert Review: It's A Show About Nothing

Sibelius, Shostakovich and Salonen at the Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Leonidas Kavakos (left) in a battle of wills with Alan Gilbert (right)
as the New York Philharmonic plays on behind them.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 The New York Philharmonic.
Alan Gilbert is back at the helm of the New York Philharmonic this week. This concert program was something of a watershed for the orchestra's music director, who has grappled with "lame duck" status since it was announced (one year ago) that he would step down at the end of next season. This week's concert program juxtaposed a post-Romantic favorite alongside a Russian rarity and Karawane, a new work by current Philharmonic composer-in-residence Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The concert opened with the Sibelius Violin Concerto, a showpiece for soloist Leonidas Kavakos and a challenge for any conductor. Mr. Kavakos brought a keen, almost astringent edge to the long first movement, with his violin keening and wailing through the massive central cadenza that Sibelius uses as a substitute for the traditional symphonic development. The orchestra counter-punched with the soloist, with Mr. Gilbert dividing his attentions equally as the recapitulation unfolded.

The central slow movement was less compelling, with tempos seeming to drag under Mr, Kavakos' solo line. Far better was the famous finale, a sort of arctic round dance led by the fiddle and echoed with hearty booms from the timpani. Mr. Kavakos, who is next year's artist-in-residence with this orchestra, obliged his cheering fans with a slow and enchanting encore from the pen of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Although the Philharmonic regularly trots out the major symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, it had been a while since they had played his excellent Ballet Suite drawn for L'Age d'Or. In fact the piece was last heard at the Philharmonic in 1947. This ballet is a Soviet indictment of capitalism that chronicles the misadventures of proletarian athletes visiting the decadent West. With the ballet score boiled down to just four short movements, this is Shostakovich at his most exuberant and snide, writing years before the Soviet system came down on him like the hammer on the Party's flag.

The four movements of the Suite teased and entertained the ear, from the sarcastic opening to the slow movement with its unexpected virtuoso passages for soprano sax and baritone horn. This yielded to a manic Polka (the best known and most-played movement here) led off by the xylophone that rattled and hummed with laughter, and the final "Soviet Dance" let the careful listener know what Shostakovich really thought of his masters: it is sardonic circus music. Here, Mr. Gilbert proved an able ringmaster, making the soloists leap adroitly through the composer's orchestral hoops.

The salt-peanut air of the circus breathes throughout Karawane the new work for chorus and orchestra written by Mr. Salonen. As the composer explained, the work is a setting of  the deliberately meaningless poetry of pioneering Dadaist and performance artist Hugo Ball. In two sections, the work starts from a whisper in the chorus and becomes a parade of lumbering force for chorus and orchestra, with a slow heavy rhythm reminiscent of Mussorgsky's Bydlo and a sense of ever-building perpetual motion that first dazzles and then overawes the senses.

That is a fair description for the performance, which featured the superbly prepared New York Choral Artists (under the leadership of Joseph Flummerfelt in what is his last Philharmonic concert) and enthusiastic orchestral leadership from Mr. Gilbert. Mr. Salonen watched from a second-tier perch, as if ready to swoop down and seize the baton if anything went amiss. Although New York is glad to have this Finnish composer in a three-year residency, there were many who wished that he would do just that. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.